When Voting Makes No Sense

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University. Alabama.

This is the season for voting. We will be urged to go out and vote, never mind for whom or for what. Voting will be praised by public-spirited types across this great land.

There never seems to be an end to people who love wagging their fingers at us. Election year is another opportunity for them to indulge in this vigorous exercise. But are they right? Should we really feel so bad if we do not vote? Is it so irresponsible to stay home or go fishing on election day?

Let me answer this somewhat personally. As a naturalized citizen i always vote. Even when I spent a couple of Novembers working in Europe, I wrote for ballots and made sure they got back in time. I am a dutiful voter, indeed.

But it takes its toll. For me to have any confidence in my repeated political acts, I have had to become a full-time political person.

In my life politics is virtually everything. I am certainly a man without hobbies. I barely have time for my family and I am able to keep up with my profession only because it largely revolves around studying politics.

For someone to have any reasonable confidence of being a good voter—to do this task in good conscience—one has to prepare for voting in a relentless, demanding fashion. In my case this has meant seeking out the best political principles and then voting in the way that most effectively supports these principles. This requires extensive study—not just reading the newspaper, following the candidates’ records, examining the various referenda, knowing the persons likely to accompany the candidate to office, and so on. Most importantly it requires keeping one’s mind on some very big questions, such as “What is justice?” “Is freedom more important than security?” “What is best for a human community?” “How far should democracy go in a country?” Can you imagine someone being a competent, conscientious voter who has not given thought to these issues? I cannot.

But there is more to our problem. The task of voting in an era of omnipresent government is unbelievably demanding. It is doubtful that one per cent of those who go to the polls have made a real effort to understand all the issues. How could they? It is certainly not their fault that in order to be politically savvy one needs to be almost omniscient.

The people we send to office are embarking on missions best undertaken by the Almighty. They have to decide on issues ranging from what fish need to be preserved to where to build the next interstate highway; from how best to fight AIDS to whether surrogate motherhood for pay should be permitted; from whether a judge is suited to sit on the Supreme Court to how much subsidy money the tobacco farmers of North Carolina should receive; from how many helicopters Angolan freedom fighters need to how to control trading on the New York Stock Exchange. And this only at the Federal level!

Because government is now involved in so many things, and politicians have to make so many complicated decisions, every politician must possess an incredible array of knowledge, talent, and skills. There is no job description that fits such people—if we can find them. Can anyone feel totally confident about voting for one over the other?

The Scope of Government

One reason I suspect the Founding Fathers and framers tried to build a society with a limited government wasn’t that they worried about the size of government. It’s the scope of government that matters. They meant for all the people to participate in the affairs of government, so they wanted those affairs to be relatively specific. That is one very good reason to limit the power of government. In the market we can judge the baker, restaurateur, dentist, carpet cleaner, or banker, and, if we deem their work inferior, we can go elsewhere. In government, however, we have to cast a vote for people whom we cannot judge, since we have little idea about what they will do; and even if we have some inkling, we have few skills to judge them at their tasks.

So if you stay home on election day, don’t feel guilty. The guilty ones are those who have turned our governments into busybody institutions that have acquired tasks and powers no one can keep an eye or mind on, let alone evaluate. Unlimited government is incompatible with representative democracy. []

Ideas On Liberty

The Political Process

Legislatures, laws, courts, constabularies, bureaucracies can do little more than exert a mild influence along lines consistent with the current consensus. The consensus moves this way or that in accord with its content; it rises when filled with truths and virtues and sinks when bogged down with nonsense. So, what i can do about the government depends upon the quality of the ideas I feed into the consensus. This defines both my limitation and my potentiality.

—Leonard E. Read